Thursday, May 17, 2007

How do you sugar coat a pill like environmental news?

The New York Times reported Thursday that Alexandra Wallace, executive producer for 'NBC Nightly News,' "plans to beef up the program’s environmental coverage, a process that has already begun with the appointment of Anne Thompson to be the network’s chief environmental affairs correspondent." It was interesting to see because the headline of the article was "New Producer at ‘Nightly News’ Seeks to Regain NBC Dominance." I sincerely hope the implied interest in environmental news is accurate, but I also think it's arguably the toughest beat to cover.

As a public concern, environmental news probably peaked around the late 80's. I think this was influenced by stories like the Exxon Valdez spill or a garbage barge like Mobro 4000; they seemed simple and easy to communicate, one reason audiences were able to connect with them. By the time Earth Day 1990 rolled around, the environment was a HUGE deal, lavished with a lot of media attention and helped by a huge push for environmental practices in manufacturing and daily activities (recycling, energy efficiency, etc.)

Two decades later, the stories aren't so simple. The most pressing environmental issues are far more complex; like any complex issue that's difficult to pack into 90 seconds, these issues are often considered tougher and less appealing to cover in broadcast. Even in 1990, mainstream media avoided analyzing climate change with much detail; granted, there was less research then, but the topic was simply too abstract, too complicated.

Even worse, environmental news has been politicized, which is incredibly unfortunate because research in natural sciences has always prided itself in objectivity or at least as an academic field propelled by an objective search for the truth.

The problems with environmental news coverage is more disconcerting because according to the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, the public learns much of what it knows about scientific issues through the media.

So how do you report environmental news? How do you make people understand and care?

A few years ago, John Carey convinced his skeptical editors at Business Week to make climate change the cover story. In a media workshop sponsored by the Metcalf Institute, Carey "[recast] the common approach of the scientist-versus-skeptic and avoided scientific 'controversy' by instead focusing on how the world will change, what policies will address those changes and, irrespective of continued controversy, how business is reacting to global warming. The science was somewhat secondary...Instead it was policy that was the hook and how it 'was changing in response to science,' how policies are becoming institutionalized and why."

It's worth noting that before she took on environmental news, Anne Thompson (not to be confused with the Variety columnist of the same name) had been chief financial correspondent for NBC News since March of 2005. Obviously, it brings up other issues to have scientific information framed through a financial analyst's perspective, but it'll be interesting to see how this plays out.


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